Cohousing: Learning and Growing in Community

Cohousing guru and author, Diana Leafe Christian, has often said that the best person for living ‘in community’ is someone who doesn’t need it; someone who is seeking personal growth not to heal old wounds, but to foster connection with others. Judging by her definition then, I was the ideal candidate for cohousing when I first became involved with the Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community in 2004.

I lived in a small strata complex which was what I call a ‘natural neighbourhood,’ where people looked out for each other and worked together to make it a welcoming community. I had close relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and members of the many organizations and groups I belonged to, as well as my faith community.

I was content with where I lived, but I wanted something more. I had lived in a housing co-operative in Ontario for 12 years, and missed the monthly socials in our common room, the support during tough times and the joy of celebrating the good. I especially liked living with people who shared my values on the environment and social justice. What I hadn’t liked about it was being a renter, and not having any say about how my home was built and maintained.

So when I found out about cohousing, and that there was one being developed in Nanaimo, I jumped at the chance to get involved. Little did I know that I was embarking on a time-consuming, exasperating, joyous, amazing, scary and tumultuous journey, one that stretched me in ways I never imagined. As one of my sister cohousers, Susana Michaelis has said, "Cohousing will be the most expensive personal growth experience you’ve ever had,” and that’s certainly true. But it’s also true that it’s been an experience full of emotional and spiritual richness.

At times it was a very tough slog when we thought we were going to lose it all, and all those years of dreaming and hoping, and hours and hours of meetings were for naught. But it’s taught me the value of persistence. It’s also been an incredible learning opportunity. I now know more about plumbing, re-zoning, heating systems, windows, municipal regulations, bank financing, topsoil, debentures, contracts and architectural drawings than I ever thought possible.

It’s forced this irrepressible head-butting Aries to be patient, to listen with both heart and mind, to accept different styles of perceiving, thinking and communicating, and value the wonderful richness these differences bring to the process of building community. It’s given me a reality check, when my idealism has had to confront the fact that we do live in a material world, where finances are the ultimate arbiter, whether I like it or not.

I’ve found, however, that even within the constraints of our society’s rules and regulations, the vision of community can be made real when you have a group of people whose commitment to consensus and cooperation is unwavering. It’s also made me realize that I am not alone in my vision of environmental stewardship, and that there are others who think composting is fun, shopping is not, and sharing a car is a great idea.

Pacific Gardens is now under construction, and the peaceful farmland property we have so often visited has now turned into a warren of trucks, excavators and piles of dirt. Soon, though, we will see the outlines of our future home, which will be a safe haven in a fragile ecosystem, and the lively centre of a warm and inviting neighbourhood, creating synergy in our south Nanaimo community.

Kathryn Hazel is a member of the Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community in Nanaimo, which is expected to be completed in late 2008.